Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Our Words as Loose Parts

"No climbing to the top!"

When our daughter was in kindergarten, her school installed an amazing rope-and-steel climbing structure. The kindergartners were forbidden from climbing to the very top, which meant that adults were always hovering around the thing, "reminding" the children when they got too high. 

One day, I asked her if she was loving the new climber. She replied, "It's kind of in the way. No one plays on it." When I asked her why, she just shrugged, "It's just not fun."

Awhile back, I posted some thoughts on The Theory of Loose Parts. Appropriately, it is an idea that has emerged from the field of architecture about how the best learning environments are those in which we have permission to shape and manipulate our surroundings, and the things found within our surroundings, to suit our needs, ideas and curiosity.

It's a theory that's generally thought of in terms of the physical environment, but no matter how loose the parts, no matter how flexible the space, if the environment does not grant permission to engage freely, then the children, as loose parts theorist Simon Nicholson puts it, will still be cheated.

That's what happened at our daughter's school. The adults, in their concern about safety (or perhaps liability), had sucked the joy out of it. They would have been better off not installing the thing at all. Or installing a shorter one. Or, the way we did it at Woodland Park, not have a climbing structure at all, but rather provide the materials -- scraps of wood, shipping pallets, car tires, ropes -- from which the children could build their own "climbers."

And at our school, that's what the children did. None so high as the one on our daughter's kindergarten playground, of course, but always just the right height for the children creating it. Not only that, these impromptu structures were never in the way because the moment the kids were done with it, the parts were on the move, being put to other uses. 

But this didn't happen just because we provided the parts. It wasn't even just because they were "loose." This kind of self-motivated loose play can only happen when children know they have permission to follow their curiosity.

At our daughter's school, the adults specifically forbid a certain type of exploration, but much of the time we let children know they don't have permission in more subtle ways. 

For instance, if you listen to the things adults are saying to children at play -- "Come here!" "Slow down!" "Be careful!" -- we hear mostly commands. Research finds that 80 percent of the sentences adults speak to young children are commands. And an environment full of commands is not an environment of permission.

We also hear a lot of school-ish questions, "What color is that?" "How many marbles do I have in my hand?" "Do you know what letter that is?" Implied in these types of questions is the idea that the adults know better than the children what to think about. But even more open-ended questions like, "What do you think will happen if you put one more block on your tower?" tend to steer children into adult approved "places" in which the parts are no longer loose. When we ask questions, we compel children to divert from their own course and onto the one we've chosen for them.

There are times for commands and questions, but if our goal is to create the kind of loose parts environments that allow children to learn at full-capacity, then we are well served to consider even our words as loose parts. When we strive to replace our commands and questions with informational statements -- "That color is red," "I have marbles in my hand," "This is the letter R" -- we are offering children information, facts, that they, like with any loose part, can use or not use.

Instead of the command "Get in the car," we might state the fact, "It's time to go" and let them do their own thinking. Instead of the command "Be careful!" we might say, "The ground below you is concrete and it will hurt if you fall on it." Instead of school-ish questions to which we already know the answers we might instead simply speculate aloud, "I wonder why the sky is blue," leaving it there for the children to consider . . . or not. 

Of course, we might also choose to just not say anything at all which is when our "third teacher," the environment, often does her best work.

We will be discussing this and much more in my course, The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think, a 6-week deep dive for educators, parents, and other caregivers who want to transform their relationship with young children by transforming how we speak with them . . . Or sometimes by not speaking at all! Registration is closes tonight at midnight tonight. Click here to learn more. I'd love to see you there!


If you're interested in learning how to transform your own words into the kind of loose parts that allow children to think for themselves, please consider registering for my 6-week course The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think. This 2024 cohort will examine how the language we use with children creates reality . . . for better or worse! We will explore how the way we speak with children creates an environment in which cooperation and peacefulness are the norm, where children take the initiative, solve their own problems, and, most importantly, think for themselves. Group discounts are available, but hurry because registration closes at midnight tonight (Wednesday, May 15). Click here for more information and to register.

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